“LOST BACK END CREW”

By LT Liza Dougherty, Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two, Public Affairs Officer

The letter landed on my desk after I’d been at Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron (VQ) TWO maybe three months, with the suggestion to “see what you can do with this.” A new NFO, I had been given the collateral duty of Public Affairs Officer, which meant occasionally getting requests from retirees for a command ball cap or working with the base PAO when there was a tour. This letter was different; it was a plea from a civilian—Ms. Stephanie Loper—who was no alumnus of the Rangers, on behalf of her uncle, who was. She needed help, she said, to get his name on the Vietnam Wall.

Two EA-3B Skywarrior aircraft from Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 2 (VQ-2) fly past Gibraltar., 6/20/1991. PH3 Franklin P. Call, USN. The EA-3B variant was assigned to fleet reconnaissance squadrons.

 

ATR3 Richard C. Hunt was attached to VQ-2 during the Vietnam War.  On May 26, 1966, along with three other members of the crew aboard their EA-3B “Whale,” Hunt bailed out over the South China Sea into the beginnings of a typhoon after their aircraft became uncontrollable during severe turbulence. Amazingly, the pilot had been able to recover control of the aircraft after giving the back end crew the order to bail out. Along with the navigator and plane captain, he flew back to safety with the silent, empty seats behind him. The sea conditions prevented a search for the lost men for several days, and their remains, save ATR3 Rich Stocker’s, were never recovered. I read Stephanie’s letter with increasing interest, the weight of that moment in time transferring from the pages to my mind. The thought of the aftermath of that decision on the surviving crew stuck with me, and still does.

I called Stephanie to tell her that I had received the letter and would try to work on it. She let me know she had reached out to others, including AMHC John Herndon, retired, who maintained an online history of VQ-2, and promised to send me some more information. I subsequently received another envelope with several printed pictures inside. In one, ATR3 Hunt’s steady gaze looked out and held mine from over 40 years earlier. He stood in front of a Whale in his flight suit, resolute, the barest hint of a smile at the edges of his mouth. I taped the image next to my desk, on the wall. People who came by would ask if it was my grandfather, or my dad. I would tell the story of my squadron mates, separated from me by over a generation, as often as anyone would listen.

 

The resolution of Stephanie’s request was proving to be difficult. Due to the Navy’s coding of the flight in official records at the time as “operational” vice “combat,” and the bailout occurring outside of the designated combat zone, a determination had been made that Hunt along with Stocker, Lt. Al Linzy and ATC Joe Aubin were ineligible to be added to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.

To the families of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in any conflict, those physical memorials are more than stone. They represent the people themselves: sons, daughters, friends, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters. With no remains and no memorial, these families in particular had lacked closure, even as the passage of time meant that lives moved forward. Children grew up, parents passed away. For relatives like Stephanie (who was not yet born at the time of her uncle’s death), recognition on the wall had become a marathon quest.

 

A scanned copy of a logbook page came in the second letter as well. That evening’s fateful flight was listed, along with “LOST BACK END CREW” written neatly in all caps halfway down the page, with no further entries beyond. It was the navigator’s logbook, and it chilled me to think of this Lt.j.g., with my job and rank, inscribing those words. I laid awake nights thinking about how often he must have thought about that flight through the subsequent four decades. I stared in the darkness at my ceiling and thought about the crew, bobbing in the stormy sea, realizing there would be no rescue for them. For Hunt, it was to be one of his last flights, as his tour would have been over in a matter of weeks. I thought about the hope of the families as I walked through the halls at the hangar, where our own Wall of Remembrance had borne all four of their names for the longest time. Their story clung to me, the debt owed to these families seemed palpable and kept my mind churning. I hoped that were I to die in the service of my country, whether it take four years or 40, a shipmate would try to do right by my loved ones.

The logbook page had the most compelling evidence that the flight had been coded incorrectly. Retired Navy Capt. Hank Schultz, whom Stephanie had found in her search for assistance, had known the lost back end crew and was also shocked to learn their names weren’t already inscribed on the Vietnam Wall. He had reached out to the navigator, Lt.j.g. Colin Pemberton, and gotten the copy of the logbook page. He knew that the code entered, “4V2” stood for a combat flight and not an “operational” one, but I had to find documentation to prove it. I called up the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla., and spoke with a very kind older gentleman, trying to find a NATOPS for a Whale from that era. If I could get in black and white that 4V2 was a combat flight, we could present that information along with the logbook to the DoD and ask them to reconsider. The museum did not have one.

The stack of letters and documents sat on my desk for some weeks as I felt I had hit a dead end. I kept working towards my own quals, flying and standing watch, attending safety stand downs and occasionally writing a story for the base newspaper about a command volunteer day. One unremarkable afternoon as I studied my own NATOPS for the E-P3E, a tickling question entered my brain. Flipping to the correct section, I scanned the abbreviations for types of flights to be entered into the navigator’s log. It was the same. 4V2 stood for night combat flight today, just as it had in 1966. I called Rudy Gonzalez, the liaison at the POW/MIA office in Washington, practically yelling through the phone. Of course I had it electronically. Of course I would email it over immediately. I hung up the phone and laugh-shouted in Richard’s face where he stared out from the painted cinderblock wall.

Around this time, my own flying career came to a halt, though not altogether abruptly, due to medical reasons. I loved the Navy, though—if anything these few months at the Q had taught me, it was that this was the life I wanted for the foreseeable future. I put in a package to transfer full-time to public affairs, in no small part because of the experience I’d had so far with Stephanie, Rudy, and the man taped up next to my desk. My boss, Cmdr. Mark Stockfish, Commanding Officer of VQ-2, gave me the news that I had been accepted by the public affairs community at our command 4th of July picnic. I apologized for my lack of decorum, and then hugged him, twice.

Seasons changed and we still hadn’t heard the board results regarding the DoD’s decision on updating the Wall. On a bright September afternoon, my phone rang. It was Capt. Schultz, and he sounded happy. “They changed their minds,” he told me. I laughed, and cried a little. They would put the names on the wall the following Memorial Day, he said. 45 years later was not too late to render honor due.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are escorted by Army Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, commander of the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region, to a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., May 28, 2012. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

 

The 2012 Vietnam Wall Commemoration Ceremony was one of the more profound experiences of my life. I attended along with Skipper Stockfish, though I had since executed a permanent change of station. As this was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, the President came and spoke, along with the service secretaries, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense. Each branch of service had a representative from the families being honored that day. I watched in the oppressive heat as Stephanie—whom I was now proud to call a friend—stood next to the Navy’s wreath and received an embrace from the President and First Lady. I walked beside the families over to the wall at the conclusion of the ceremony, watching as Stephanie’s mother, Richard Hunt’s sister, traced the letters of his name in the stone.

Many times in a Navy career, and in life generally, the conclusion isn’t so observable, so final, wrapped up in a beautiful presentation with the President commemorating the occasion. When that rare moment comes along, it makes the details of everyday tasks fall away. I looked at Hunt’s name, and Linzy and Aubin and Stocker. I am connected to these men, through time, through the Rangers, through the wall. The wall that bore their names back at VQ-2, which I stood in front of in my stiff new flight jacket for my check-in photo. The wall in Pensacola which, this Memorial Day weekend will see their names added, joining thousands of others who died for the country we all believe in. The wall in Washington, a rubbing from which of Hunt’s name sent to me by Stephanie after the ceremony, has been present at every desk I’ve sat at since — it’s the first thing that goes up when I arrive, and the last thing that comes down when I leave. It is not just in the stone of the wall that their legacy lives on, but in the shipmates they still have, serving throughout the world.

VQ-2’s motto was “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.”

We remember this Memorial Day. And Shipmates, we have the watch.

Comments

comments